The May 21 meeting of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) featured discussions ranging from oceans to energy, and touched on several pending PCAST reports.
Before delving into the day’s proceedings, PCAST co-chairs John Holdren and Eric Lander announced that with Harold Varmus’ appointment as Director of the National Cancer Institute, his attendance at such meetings and leadership in PCAST would necessarily drawdown. Holdren characterized this PCAST as “the most active and productive PCAST in history.” Lander subsequently called Varmus’ appointment “the right direction for the nation.”
In April, PCAST asked members of the public to contribute to a website to discuss a forthcoming national manufacturing policy. To focus contributions, PCAST solicited responses to 10 questions including; “Should the President create a national science– and technology–based manufacturing strategy as a pillar of US economic policy? If not, why not? If so, which actions should have highest priority? Which of these are most cost-effective?”
At the May PCAST meeting, members discussed advanced manufacturing, and the progress of a report on that subject lead by Shirley Ann Jackson and Eric Schmidt. Jackson defined advanced manufacturing as “new ways to manufacture existing products, that is through the use of new technologies and sophisticated tools, and to new ways to commercialize new technology and use them to manufacture new products.” Jackson said PCAST will examine barriers that prevent new technologies from the market, and how to accelerate the introduction of new breakthrough technologies in the market. That report is being prepared for July.
Much of the PCAST meeting was devoted to a presentation on biodiversity by Jane Lubchenco, Administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and Steve Murawski, Director of Scientific Programs and Chief Science Advisor at the National Marine Fisheries Service at NOAA.
For Lubchenco, the PCAST meeting was a reprieve from a month of monitoring the BP oil disaster. Beginning with a general overview, Lubchenco explained the importance of diverse life forms and ecosystems, and the resilience of those systems. Lubchenco explained that as “stressors” like pollution increase, ecosystems cannot sustain life in the same way. Lubchenco further explained that there are different types of services provided to humans by different ecosystems. Broadly there are four categories of these services; provisioning (food, water, fiber), regulating (climate, floods, water quality), cultural (aesthetic, educational), and supporting (soil formation, photosynthesis). A major international report, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, drew linkages between these services and human well-being. Lubchenco emphasized one of the reports major conclusions that “natural security, economic opportunity, human health, all can be connected in part to healthy, productive, and resilient ecosystems, and biodiversity is what underpins that healthy, productive, and resilient ecosystem.”
Lubchenco went on to highlight loss of resilience in ecosystems, including growing dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico, harmful algal blooms, coral bleaching, and depleted fisheries. According to the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, 60 percent of services have been lost or are currently at risk, in part because provisioning services have been favored at the expense of other services. The report also found that major causes of ecosystem degradation are mostly constant or accelerating. Lubchenco surmised that it is possible to meet demand for services while restoring ecosystems, but a holistic, aggressive, and coordinated strategy is necessary.
After describing NOAA’s mission, Lubchenco discussed the need for better coordination within NOAA and the wider federal government. To that end, NOAA established a biodiversity group that participates in an ad hoc multiagency biodiversity working group. The Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force, created by President Obama last June, includes 24 federal agencies and offices with direct responsibility for oceans, or indirect impact on them. The Task Force was tasked with developing a national ocean policy and a framework for implementing that policy. Recommendations for the President are being finalized now.
Varmus lead the next discussion on the report on influenza vaccinology. In November of last year, Holdren proposed PCAST study the production of vaccines against pandemic influenza. The report addresses the release of the first vaccine where availability was delayed until after H1N1 peaked. In March, PCAST briefed the President on the report. While provisional approval of the written report is pending, the report will recommend increased pandemic surveillance through coordination, better seed viruses, faster and more accurate sterility tests, better reagents, and expanding and modernizing the vaccine manufacturing process.
Arun Majumdar, Director of the Advanced Research Projects Agency- Energy (ARPA-E) briefed PCAST on his agency’s mission to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, reduce oil imports, improve US standing in manufacturing, introduce new technologies into the market, and create new jobs. Majumdar posited that the combined issues of climate change, energy security, and a shrinking US technological lead are the “Sputnik moment of our generation.” ARPA-E received 3,700 concept papers in response to its first solicitation, ultimately funding 37 projects with awards averaging $4 million. Examples of projects selected for first round funding include research in cellulosic biofuels, high efficiency wind turbines, and grid-level electricity storage. Majumdar emphasized that fulfilling ARPA-E’s mission will be long term, not coming for perhaps 10 years. In the next three to five years however, Majumdar suggests progress will be demonstrated if ARPA-E can attract a new generation of energy researchers and investors, create new companies to produce energy production goods, and accelerate the market entry of projects.
PCAST was also briefed about the progress of two reports on health information technology, and science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education. Both reports are being finalized, and will likely be ready by the next PCAST meeting tentatively scheduled for July 15-16.